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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Courting the Hispanic vote
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News Online in San Antonio, Texas

Call the police in Denver, Colorado, and you'll get a message in Spanish as well as English.

Ted Terrazas
Small business owner Ted Terrazas: Political parties should look at economics rather than ethnicity
Board a plane in Atlanta, Georgia, and the safety video will have both languages.

The largest owner of US radio stations announced last week it would switch at least 20 stations to "Hispanic formats" in the next 18 months.

America's oldest minority community is clearly coming of age.

Last year, Latinos passed African-Americans to become the largest minority group in the United States. With a population of about 39 million, they make up about 13% of the nation's total.

And the community continues to grow fast, making them an important target for both parties in a country so evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Fight for allegiance

Latinos have traditionally voted Democratic by a margin of two to one, but President George W Bush hopes to win a bigger share of the community's vote this year.

Anita and Manuel Vasquez live in San Antonio, Texas
Anita and Manuel head three generations of the Vasquez family in San Antonio

Joe Solis, a small business owner and Republican party activist in San Antonio, thinks he should.

As African-American writer Toni Morrison dubbed Bill Clinton "America's first black president", Mr Solis considers Mr Bush to be the country's first Hispanic president.

Mr Bush speaks Spanish and has blood relatives who are Hispanic, Mr Solis points out. And the president's values mirror those of the Hispanic community, he says.

Hispanic community organiser Henry Rodriguez - a Democrat - laughs at the notion.

"Any fool can speak Spanish. I can say 'Domo arigato' but so what? Does that make me Japanese? Of course not. Speaking Spanish and eating enchiladas does not impress us," he says.

Divide

The contrasting opinions reflect what seems to be a deep divide in the Hispanic community - many of whom are not immigrants, but members of families that have been in the US for generations.

"I am a Republican. I have been voting Republican for many, many years," says Olga Bernal Owens, who owns a Hispanic advertising agency in San Antonio - a city that is nearly 60% Latino.

Hispanics are no longer tied to the bean fields. We are very concerned about the economy, our [retirement] plans, our ability to buy houses
Ted Terrazas,
Small business owner
"But my family - my parents, my sister, my cousins - are all Democrats. We cannot discuss any issue in our house when I am there and I think that's very sad."

"They try to educate me by feeding me false information and when I try to educate them I am not allowed to speak - and you can see that with a lot of Hispanics here."

She says part of the reason for the chasm is economic.

SNAPSHOT: HEAVILY HISPANIC STATES
New Mexico*: 42%
California: 32%
Texas: 32%
Arizona*: 25%
Nevada*: 20%
Colorado*: 17%
Florida*: 17%
*Swing state
Source: Almanac of American Politics

"It has a lot to do with the fact that I am a small business owner. They don't own businesses and they feel that's the big difference between us."

Ted Terrazas, who owns a small business that provides services to the government, says political parties would do better to look at economics than ethnicity when targeting potential voters.

"People tend to categorise Hispanics as a particular group separate from their economics and I don't think that's true," he says.

"You'll find that we'll probably replicate the main perspective of the United States."

He grew up in a Democratic California family that was friendly with left-wing Hispanic activist Cesar Chavez - but he is now a staunch Republican, like Mrs Owens and Mr Solis.

Speaking to BBC News Online at the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, they all backed President Bush as a supporter of small business.

This president is not going to back down - he is very committed to protecting the community that he serves
Gloria Andrade DeMarco,
Small business owner
"Hispanics are no longer tied to the bean fields. We are very concerned about the economy, our [retirement] plans, our ability to buy houses," Mr Terrazas says.

The businesspeople also see Mr Bush a strong leader in the fight against terror.

"Now we know that we are very vulnerable. That's something that we hadn't known before," business consultant Gloria Andrade DeMarco says.

"We see that this president is not going to back down. He is very committed to protecting the community that he serves."

Even outside business circles, that view has resonance.

Albert Trujillo works for a local school district in the city. He says the Democrats "have usually had a better focus on the needs of Hispanics than the Republicans" - but he says he will probably vote for President Bush.

"Unfortunately there are a few issues that are more important right now - the safety of our children and our nation."

Anti-war

But Mr Rodriguez, the community organiser and a committed Democrat, condemns the war in Iraq unreservedly.

"One of the worst things [President Bush] has ever done is send us to war. We cannot go to war unless we really have to, not because the president wants to. That is unforgivable," he says.

We're just like any other people - I think we're just interested in how we are going to be able to continue to support our families and have a decent life
Cynthia Guerra,
Small business owner
Ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of the armed forces.

Almost every Latino who spoke to BBC News Online in San Antonio had close family who had served in the military - and many had served themselves.

Mr Rodriguez is upset by the Iraq war's effect on the Latino community - and he also has sympathy for the Iraqis.

"It's fine to wave the flag and say God bless our troops, but there are other people out there who are being killed by our bombs. If we really believe in our religions, we should believe what we are doing to those poor people out there is not right. They are humans just like we are."

US ELECTION ROAD TRIP
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene
Kevin Anderson and Richard Greene are travelling across the US to get to the heart of the issues in this year's election. They are sending back regular in-depth reports telling us what they find

More generally, he sees the Democratic party as more inclusive than the Republicans.

He is involved in a voter-registration campaign called Unlock Your Vote, aimed at ex-convicts.

Under Texas law, they can vote once they are out of prison and off parole - a fact not many of them know, he says.

He says the campaign has registered thousands of voters and will become a get-out-the-vote effort in the month leading up to the election.

The potential benefits - to either party - of shifting a large segment of the Hispanic vote could be huge.

One market research group, HispanIntelligence, estimates that the increase in the number of voting-age Hispanics since 2000 is greater than the margin of victory in seven states in that year's presidential race.

But it looks like it will be increasingly difficult for any one candidate to command the loyalty of such a large and diverse community.

"We're just like any other people," says small business owner Cynthia Guerra, who describes herself as a political independent.

"If you are in business you are going to be interested in business issues, and if you are a mother you're going to be interested in the education of your child.

"I don't think we're any different. I think we're just interested in how we are going to be able to continue to support our families and have a decent life."


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